Paul Thullen was surprised earlier this summer to see a large turkey waddling by his yard in south Minneapolis — just steps from a busy highway driveway. Then, a few days later, he saw a deer crossing the same spot.
Thullen wondered if more wildlife has come to live in Minnesota’s busiest cities, and if so, why?
“I’ve always seen the usual—lots of squirrels, rabbits, and raccoons,” says Thillen, who is retired and has always spent much of his time outdoors. “But deer and turkeys are new. And in the last couple of years we’ve started getting bald eagles nests and things like that.’
Thullen turned to Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune’s community reporting project where questions from readers are put to the experts. Urban conservationists say the answer is complicated, because some animals have fared much better in cities than others.
Deer and turkeys have been among Minnesota’s most stable populations for years, and their populations probably haven’t increased much lately. But this year’s drought has made some animals bolder at cleaning out trash cans and looting well-watered gardens, said John Moriarty, senior wildlife manager at Three Rivers Park District.
“I think most of the deer have come in and fed themselves in the yard,” he said.
The number of urban deer has been high for a long time, according to conservationists. Many counties, including Hennepin and Ramsey, give special tags to bow hunters to enter parks and thin herds of deer to avoid car accidents.
However, turkeys are a special case. Their populations are healthybut only because of a heroic, nationwide effort to bring wild turkeys back from the brink of extinction.
After being overhunted and losing much of their habitat, they were completely wiped out from Minnesota by the mid-20th century—along with almost every other part of the country. They survived in just a few pockets where humans just couldn’t get them, deep in the Florida swamps and high in the Missouri Ozarks. In 1971, a few of those survivors were netted in the Ozarks, released in Minnesota and blossomed†
People may now notice these animals more because of the pandemic, which has sparked an unprecedented amount of interest in wildlife and the great outdoors across the country, said Michael Goodnature, natural resources manager for Ramsey County.
Items such as hunting ammunition and kayaks are in high demand, he said, and the number of birdwatchers visiting parks has skyrocketed.
“I think people just pay a lot more attention to the wildlife that was already here,” Goodnature said.
Recently, it seems like the largest animals do best in urban areas, Moriarty said. Trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, eagles, peregrine falcons and ospreys are all doing much better than 25 years ago, thanks in large part to ban on pesticides and extensive reintroduction efforts, he said.
Also large mammals are creep closer and closer to cities.
“Black bears are more common and stay longer in northern Hennepin County,” Moriarty said. “We know of at least one sow with two cubs that has been seen here since April.”
A wolf pack not only lived, but bloomed three years, just 20 miles north of Minneapolis in the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. The pack grew to 19 wolves in 2017 before the predators started killing dogs and livestock. Wildlife managers were called in to kill most of the pack.
Foxes and coyotes have been at home for years near downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. Star Tribune Photographer David Joles has been following foxes for a long time and their burrows on Nicollet Island and Boom Island in Minneapolis, documenting their crossing of railroad tracks and cobblestone streets overlooking towering old mills and the Guthrie Theater.
The best time to see foxes is at dawn or dusk, Joles said. And if you follow them long enough, you get to know their habits.
“They have advantages in urban settings,” Joles said. “They’re opportunists. People will do things like leave cat and dog food on their porch and these foxes will go there to empty the bowl.”
But urban populations of much smaller animals are heading in the wrong direction.
Butterfly, bumblebee and other pollinator populations have crashed. Certain turtles, which used to be common near ponds and in parks of just about every city, have either been significantly reduced or endangered.
Red-headed woodpeckers have been decimated by habitat loss. bluebirdspurple martins and other songbirds have all declined in numbers, Moriarty said, even if the forests and trees they rely on are protected.
“The problem is that these species don’t just need forests, they need forests with lots of plants on the ground,” he said.
Invasive species, such as earthworms and springworms, have stripped nutrients from the soil beneath those plants, causing them to die. Invasive sea buckthorn weeds have also choked out the native plants that would otherwise make up much of the forest floor, providing habitat for songbirds.
But there is much hope. As urban and suburban parks and wildlife sanctuaries have removed sea buckthorn and other invasive species, rarer birds have begun to return, Goodnature said.
The metro area, which includes the Mississippi River, bounces back relatively quickly because it’s part of such a large and important flight path, Goodnature said.
“Think of all the birds and waterfowl that use that flight path,” he said. “All the greenery we have in the Twin Cities is so important to them as they travel up and down, and they know exactly where to go.”
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